There are places that feel like home, no matter where you grew up.
That is my Colorado.
My first trip to the mountains was a family summer vacation when I was 12-years-old. I had never been west of the Mississippi and had never seen mountains, especially those covered in snow in June.
I felt like I had died and went to heaven. We went whitewater rafting and horseback riding, drove past winding mountain vistas that took my breath away, and at the end of the trip asked, “Why would anyone live anywhere else?”
Even though I have yet to relocate to Colorado, from that vacation forward I spent both winter and summer vacations learning how to rock climb, backcountry camp and ski like a local. Because I was moving here one day.
Returning to the Rockies
This summer when my wife Julie had a conference in Colorado, I jumped at the chance to join her for a long weekend.
I hadn’t been back to Rocky Mountain National Park since that summer when I was 12 and suddenly my heart was all aflutter with excitement. Julie had never visited Colorado in the summer, so quickly we threw together a plan.
Friday afternoon Julie picked me up at DIA and we sped into Denver to grab dinner with a good friend. My friend Jayne and I had spent our late 20s skiing our asses off at Vail and now as I sat there with her adorable 4-year old son, it was amazing to think how much things had changed. And how much they hadn’t.
Glamping in Boulder’s Basecamp Hotel
After hugs good-bye, Julie and I drove up to Boulder, the home of The University of Colorado, where I nearly went to college. Boulder is also about halfway between Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park, so it broke up the drive and allowed me to show Julie my almost-alma-matter.
We checked into a cute hotel that catered to young, glamping enthusiasts like us named Basecamp Hotel. The rooms were well-curated with stainless steel coolers for end tables, lanterns and a artsy Boulder map that served as a headboard. Super gram-worthy win!
Basecamp Hotel was also just a 10-minute walk away from the cute coffee shops, restaurants and granola liberals galore on Pearl Street. So Saturday morning we woke up early to partake in some local coffee, breakfast and bloodies at Snooze.
Estes Park: Tourists, T-Shirts and Gateway to RMNP
We then drove north to Estes Park, which hadn’t changed much in 26 years. As the Gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park is known for The Stanley Hotel thanks to Stephen King, ice cream shops, and middle America trying to be outdoorsy.
Thankfully we didn’t have much time to kill in Estes Park, because we had a 3pm reservation to go horseback riding at a stable on the edge the National Park. I have always been a horse lover, so taking in the beauty of the mountains on horseback not only was a great way to take in the park, but I felt like my 12-year-old self experiencing it all for the first time again.
During the busy season, definitely call ahead to make a reservation for horseback riding at least a week ahead, because this is an activity that books up early. Also, this is not a ride for adrenaline junkies, because the horses aren’t allowed to do anything but walk while in the national park.
Kitschy Cabin In the Woods
After our ride we checked in to the kitchiest of all cabin retreats, conveniently located just a few miles from the less-populated entrance to the park on Highway 34. Pine Haven Resort had 10 uniquely-themed rustic cabins, community BBQ pits and communal areas, and a quaint stream running through the property.
Our cabin, The Bird House, was near the back of the resort near the mouth of some great hiking trails and a bit more secluded. Inside there was a small kitchenette and mega-wildlife theming complete with more carved wooden animals and framed needlepoint bird art than you have ever seen. It was absolutely perfect!
For dinner we headed to Estes Park on what would turn into a desperate tour to find somewhere that served both food and alcohol, and boasted more than 2 stars on yelp. It wasn’t easy.
We finally found Poppy’s Pizza, which was the only restaurant in 48 hours worth writing about. Local beers on draft, more than one wine on the menu, and a delicious, crusty pizza was just what we were in the mood for and Poppy’s delivered.
Six Miles to See It All
Eager to get in touch with our latent outdoorsy selves, the next morning we got up early to hike to the summit of nearby Deer Mountain. RMNP has countless hikes that vary in difficulty and length and, after some research, Deer Mountain’s moderate summit trail that was only 6 miles round trip, sounded perfect.
After an hour and a half of switchbacks and varied terrain, we made our way to the summit and were rewarded with 360-views of the surrounding Rocky Mountains and a whole slew of brave chipmunks who did anything to get some of our trail snacks.
John Denver Had It Right
After our hike, we joined the other summer tourists to drive the iconic Trail Ridge Road. If you haven’t done this drive once in your life, put it on your bucket list and don’t be in a hurry. Traffic backups occur because a herd of elk will cross the road, and you’ll want to snap photos at nearly every vista. If California’s Highway 1 will make you want to learn how to surf, Trail Ridge Road will make you want to breathe this mountain air more often, albeit without the tourists.
The rest of the day we explored more of RMNP until we were ready to escape the tourists and head back to our kitschy cabin and have some wine and cheese on our porch. As the sun set and the cicadas came out, we were thankful for bad cell service and our Rocky Mountain High.
Even though RMNP and Estes Park were both everything and nothing that I remembered from my first trip here 26 years ago, it always feels good to come back home. And it feels even better to do it with the love of your life.